Today for the first time ever on PML we are having a guest post (hold the applause). Here now is the debut from my partner in blogging, Pheebs. Although this is the first time, hopefully it won’t be the last.
I recently was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a radio news broadcast interviewing author Candice Millard. She was speaking about her new book entitled, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. (Hereafter referred to as DOR for my sanity.) My curiosity got the better of me and I added this read to my Christmas wish list — and I have to say it was one of the best presents I received this year. In DOR is a seamlessly woven tale of three men – an assassin, a president, and an inventor – whose paths cross just long enough to change the course of US history.
Even most history buffs can’t really tell you much about the 20th president of the United States, James Garfield. He is often lumped together with his “Gilded Age” contemporaries — the “forgettable” presidents. Most ordinary Americans (myself previously included) might have an image of him sipping brandy out of a golden goblet with bff’s Johnny Rockefeller and JJ Astor. However, I learned from DOR that the exact opposite is true. The last US President to be born in a legit log cabin, Garfield came from abject poverty and a single mother household. His mom was a pretty wise lady and beyond the completely admirable feat of hacking it alone in that log cabin, she instilled Garfield with a love of learning. An overzealous reader and all around nerd (he knew Virgil’s Aeneid by heart…oh yeah, in English AND LATIN) Garfield put his way through school by working as the institution’s janitor. From the very start of her book Millard paints Garfield as a guy to respect — a humble book lover who works his way up from that janitor to the university’s president. I was amazed by the man’s versatility as well. Garfield not only pursued a career in academics, but dabbled in law, was nominated to congress, fought as a general on the side of the Union in the Civil War (he was adamantly anti-slavery) and even spent some time working on the Erie and Ohio canal. Talk about a résumé. It’s clear that Millard admires the heck out of the guy, and one of the best things about the book is that it’s incredibly difficult not to join her as a Garfield groupie.
Yet the thing that Millard makes quite clear is that Garfield was never particularly ambitious for the limelight and certainly never cutthroat. One of Millard’s most triumphant moments is her description of how the guy (somewhat comically) accidentally became nominated as a United States president. I read this book at quite a timely moment, feeling a powerful sense of déjà vu as Millard paints the crazy riot that was the 1880 Republican National Convention. Millard reminds readers that merely 15 years had passed since the end of the Civil War and even Lincoln’s grand old party had powerful factions. (think Tea Partiers VS Mitt Romney Repubs….. but more so) Garfield’s appearance was meant to be simply a small part of the circus, as he was scheduled to introduce candidate John Sherman to the raucous and sharply divided mob that gathered in Chicago. What Sherman didn’t count on was how eloquent Garfield really was. So the man stands up to introduce Sherman, and his speech is so good that the crowd starts screaming “we want Garfield!” Garfield, shocked and horrified by this turn of events is left wondering how exactly he ends up getting nominated (and subsequently elected) to the highest office in the land. What Millard makes clear in her re-telling, is that Garfield never intended or even wanted to be President. I found this one of the best things about Garfield. In contrast to a modern political atmosphere where ambition and a killer ego is needed for a presidential run, Garfield simply seemed to see it as his duty to serve the people who were so inspired by him.
Ever since HBO’s The Pacific came out last year I’ve wanted to read the memoirs that the show was based on. I started with E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. If you know anything about the Pacific Theater or you’ve seen the show then you know that Peleliu and Okinawa, along with Iwo Jima, were some of the most brutal battles of WWII. To make things worse Peleliu was never really used during the war for any purpose during the war so it was a battle that was unnecessary.
Sledge begins the book as he is in college preparing to become a Marine officer. Early on, however, he decides that he does not want to finish college and then become an officer. So he and some others in the program quit and join up as enlisted Marines. He then goes on to describe his boot camp experiences and his training to become a mortar man. Throughout his narrative Sledge sprinkles in his personal insights as an older man looking back on the experience. These insights help foreshadow events setting up the reader for what is to come. More often than not though the insights tend to be a bit contradictory. He definitely sees war differently than he did as a fresh faced young kid. These contradictions are a good thing as it allows him to speak frankly about his experience but to also comment on his actions, other Marines actions, or the war in general from the perspective of time.
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is a manga comic written by Shigeru Mizuki. Mizuki is a veteran of World War II and this manga serves as the memoir of his experiences in World War II. He states that it is 90% true. I believe that this is the only one of his works that has been translated into English, which based off of my experience reading this, is a shame.
This manga follows one particular battalion that is stationed on Rabaul. As one of the earlier battles in the war the Japanese were not as proficient as they would become with their suicide attacks and the guerrilla warfare tactics that would make Peleliu, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima so bloody for both sides. (A quick aside on this. The Battle of Peleliu solidified what would become typical for Japanese fighting afterwards. Long battles of attrition with high numbers of casualties because the Japanese would fight to the death and refuse to surrender. When defeat was imminent the Japanese would go on Banzai charges or suicide attacks ensuring that almost all of them died. The casualties for the Japanese on Peleliu is estimated at 10,900 soldiers killed and 3o2 taken prisoner. Of those 302 only 7 were soldiers and 12 sailors, the rest were non-Japanese laborers. These types of casualty totals became standard for the Japanese. On Iwo Jima 21,844 soldiers were killed or committed suicide out of 22,060.) Mizuki confronts this directly in his memoir. He is a survivor of a suicide attack on Rabaul, along with around 80 soldiers.
I found Washington’s Crossing an extremely enjoyable read. It’s a fairly short book but well written and captivating. While the focus of the book is on the crossing and the ensuing battles, Fischer starts the book describing the various parts of both armies. I have to admit before I read this book I didn’t know much about the Hessians or all the various divisions and specialties within the British Army. After getting the reader acquainted with all the major players Fischer delves into the beginning of the revolution. Specifically he highlights the New York campaign which was a disaster for Washington and the Americans. Afterwards you see how precarious the situation was and how close the revolution came to dying out. This context helps the reader understand why the crossing is important in our history and also why Washington is a big deal.
This book isn’t a hagiography of Washington. What it does is turn Washington into a real person. All too often the founders are looked at, spoke of, and written about like they are these mythical beings that came down from on high to bestow their wisdom on us. Their greatness is in the fact that they were flawed people who were thrust into a situation where they overcame their flaws and achieved greatness. Washington may not have been the best tactician, but what Fischer makes clear is that Washington knew how to be a leader. After some missteps and apprehension in the New York campaign, Washington begins to trust in himself and his generals, especially when contrasted with the British and Hessian style of leadership. He learns how to lead all the various sub groups of Americans effectively. That’s what is really at the heart of this book. If you don’t like military history you can skip some of the descriptions of the battles and still find the book worthwhile.
One of the strongest, most resonant parts of the book for me were the parts that described how Washington enforced the ideals of the American Revolution and put them into practice. Throughout the war Americans were often not given quarter by British or Hessians. Many Americans died a brutal death after surrendering, and many more died on prison ships off the coast of New York. However, Washington and other leaders stressed that captured British and Hessian soldiers should be treated as humanely. While I’m sure there were retribution killings, the vast majority of British and Hessians were treated humanely by the Americans. This was something that was just not done at the time, but it exemplified the ideals of the revolution. It was theory put into practice. The treatment was so good that almost a quarter of all the Hessians that were captured either remained in the US after the war or emigrated shortly thereafter. (This has been seen time and time again in American history, where our noble treatment of POWs has left an indelible mark on those people. In particular during WWII many Germans wanted to be captured by Americans or British soldiers as opposed to the Russians because they knew they would be treated fairly. Many who were brought to the US remained here after the war. Sadly, I don’t think anyone in Guantanamo will wish to remain. IMHO our magnanimity in war and as victors was one of our greatest assets and we seem to have forgotten that.) Anyways the book is well worth the read and I highly recommend it.
I’ll leave you with a quote from a closing comment from Fischer:
“Too many writers have told us that we are captives of our darker selves and helpless victims of our history. It isn’t so, and never was. The story of Washington’s Crossing tells us that Americans in an earlier generation were capable of acting in a higher spirit–and so are we.”
This is the first real history book I’ve read with my Kindle and it wasn’t a short one. Clocking in at around 860 pages this is a long, thorough study of the Civil War. How thorough? I didn’t get to Fort Sumter until around 250+ pages in. Despite its length it was a quick, breezy read on the Kindle. The book is totally worth reading even if you are only marginally interested in the Civil War. I took a graduate class on the Civil War and didn’t learn half of what I learned from this $10 book. It’s easy to see why this book was the Pulitzer Prize winning book in 1989, and I bet it wasn’t even close.
McPherson starts this book with the Mexican-American War and slowly works his way towards the Civil War. He weaves through the political, military, and social factors that confronted the country leading up to the war. He does a fine job weaving all the different themes together into a nice narrative that sweeps you up and makes it hard to put the book down. His prose smart and engaging whether he is describing a battle or the intricacies of the various political movements. He goes into so much detail without being overwhelming and he describes aspects of the war that I never knew about i.e. the river boat battles in the west. At it’s heart this book is a military history (as it should be it’s the Civil fucking War (if only some of my history teachers would remember that)), with a large portion of the book devoted to politics, and a smaller but substantial portion dedicated to social history.
There’s not much else to say except go pick it up and read it. It’s worth your time and it will help you, even if you know a good deal about the Civil War, gain a greater understanding of the times and how the effects of this war still echo through our society today. Plus if you think the war was about states rights you definitely need to pick it up, you know who you are.
Up next Washington’s Crossing the second Pulitzer Prize winning book of three on my list.
"Old Rough and Ready"
Well this is it; the final list in my series on presidential nicknames. This one is reserved for the most badass nicknames. Not all of these presidents are military heroes (nor should they be), but they all have badass names for one reason or another. If you haven’t yet, you should read Part I and Part II first. Hopefully, this series has been as enjoyable for you to read as it was for me to write, and hopefully it has sparked in you some interest in history.
10. William Henry Harrison
Nicknames: “General Mum”, “Tippecanoe”, and “Washington of the West”.
Anytime that you get compared to George Washington you have to be doing something right. A tip of the ol’ cap to Harrison.
10. John Quincy Adams
Nicknames: “Old Man Eloquence” and “The Abolitionist”.
John Quincy Adams although alive during the founding era is not one of the founders. His time came a bit later. The scion of “His Rotundity” proved to have great eloquence and also character. He was an outspoken supporter of abolition in a time when it wasn’t exactly popular. Also for bonus points and real badassitude, legend has it that Adams didn’t take the oath of office on a Bible, but on a book of laws. Now that’s badass.
8. William Jefferson Clinton
Nicknames: “Bubba”, “The Comeback Kid”, “The First Black President”, “Slick Willie”, and “Teflon Bill”.
Slick Willie for somehow weaseling out of every single scandal that he was involved in and the Comeback Kid for some how always rehabilitating his image after said scandals. Aside from Nixon, Clinton probably is one of the most resilient presidents ever. Every year his presidency (and thereby himself), despite the scandals, looks better and better.
7. Theodore Roosevelt
Nicknames: “The Cyclone Assemblyman”, “The Hero of San Juan Hill”, “The Lion”, “Old Four Eyes”, “Theodore the Meddler”, “Teddy”, “TR”, “The Trust Buster”, and “Teedie”.
The Lion and The Hero of San Juan Hill are pretty fierce names for a dude with glasses thicker than Professor Farnsworth’s. Oh yeh and he was a weak, sickly kid with asthma who learned boxing and started a fitness regime to overcome his weakness. On top of that believed in the conservation of our natural resources and helped protect millions or acres of wildlife. He also didn’t let himself get punked by a bunch of plutocrats. Trust Buster indeed. On top of all of this he is the inspiration for the Teddy Bear, Bam! Bonus points for being the first president to go by his initials.
It’s time for round two of presidential nicknames. This time we move on to the funniest, most ironic (hence the hipster edition) nicknames. So these nicknames will be funny, or ironic, or both. Huzzah! If you haven’t done so yet read Part I.
10. Chester Alan Arthur
Nicknames: “Chet”, “Gentleman Boss”, “Prince Arthur”, “The Dude President”, and “Walrus”
The Dude President. I have a sneaking suspicion that Arty wasn’t really elected president. Instead it was one Chester Alan Arthur of Ohio. However, our Chester A. Arthur, from California, preferred drinking white russians whilst bowling. Unfortunately, he spent his entire presidency trying to get a new rug from the English PM after a couple of limey thugs peed on his (if you don’t get any of these references punch yourself in the face now). Also did anyone ever call him Chester the Molester? I dunno but that definitely would’ve made for a great attack ad.
9. John Adams
Nicknames: “The Colossus of Independence”, “The Duke of Braintree”, “King John the Second”, “Old Sink or Swim”, and “His Rotundity”.
Here we have one of the founders who accomplished a lot to bring America into being. He was also the second President of the United States, but he also spent more time on vacation on his farm in Quincy than actually presidenting. He spent more time on vacation than George W. Bush (and that’s saying something) Perhaps we should add “His Vationness” or “Vacation-in-Chief”. Of course Adams was also a colossal cock who rubbed everyone the wrong way (his own party didn’t even want to endorse him for a second term). Adams also was particularly fond of seemingly British titles and procedures, hence all the Dukes, Kings etc. in his nicknames, despite the fact that the US had just fought a war to get rid of a lot of that shit. He is a complete contradiction. Oh yah and he was fat. His Rotundity is one of my favorite nicknames ever.
8. Thomas Jefferson
Nicknames: “The Apostle of Democracy”, “The Man of the People”, “Mad Tom”, “The Negro President”, and “The Sage of Monticello”.
Jefferson the first President elected because of the three-fifths compromise hence The Negro President. Jefferson helped his own cause by fathering a horde of half black kids. Jefferson begins a string of presidents from the south (not all in a row) who get elected primarily because of slavery. The only reason he could be a sage was because he didn’t have to work. He had plenty of time to think and contemplate philosophy whilst his slaves did all his work. One of the few things that Jefferson ever let get in the way of all of his sageing was all the slave banging he did.
"The Tennessee Tailor"
While reading Battle Cry of Freedom McPherson, at times, uses the nicknames of presidents. When I read a couple of these immediately a dim light bulb went off in my head and I thought “I should write a post about presidential nicknames”. Because I’m too lazy to do the research I am going to use this list from Wikipedia as my source, but because I am excited about the prospects of this post I have decided to turn it into a trilogy of posts (Huzzah!!). We have had 44 presidents so I figure I will keep the lists to 10 name plus some (dis)honorable mentions, which should pretty much take care of all the interesting ones. The rules for this exercise are fairly fluid but the main one is no president will be on two lists. If they have a good one and a bad one I will pick which ever I like the best or worst and go with that one. This list will be of worst presidential nicknames, with worst being defined in two ways. Either boring uninspiring names for boring uninspiring presidents or bad nicknames for presidents who should have fared better. Here now is my subjective list of the worst presidential nicknames:
10. Warren Gamaliel Harding
Nickname: “Wobbling Warren”
Not a name that helps inspire confidence.
9. John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Nicknames: “JFK”, “Jack”, and “The King of Camelot”
For all the bluster about the Kennedy years and how wonderful they were and how much JFK inspired the nation these are some pretty weak nicknames. And the whole Camelot meme is seriously worn out, especially as time drags on.
8. Andrew Johnson
Nickname: “The Tennessee Tailor”
Profession + State = boring and uninspiring. Johnson was the first President to be impeached. So hows about “Commander Impeach”.
7. Franklin Pierce
Nicknames: “The Fainting General”, “Young Hickory of the Granite Hills”, and “Handsome Frank”
There are many, many (you could say a plethora or myriad) attributes you would like your General or President to have. Fainting is not one of them. I see the situation playing out like this:
“General the enemy is coming.”
“OOOOH the enemy is coming!”
“General?!? General?!? Shit he fainted again. Sound the attack and carry the Generaless to her tent.”
Also I would say that “Handsome Frank” was probably a sarcastic nickname.
A couple days ago I finished Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and over the last few days I have been letting it digest in my brain. I decided to read this book because while I’ve always wanted to watch Apocalypse Now I’ve just never been able to make it through the movie. I figured I’d read the book that inspired it instead. Heart of Darkness is a short, easy read that I found extremely enjoyable. The book is narrated by Charles Marlow, a sailor, as he recounts his journey down an African river into the Congo as a Captain of a steamboat. The entire book is basically Marlow describing this journey to some other men one night. There are only a handful of times where Marlow stops telling his story to make a comment or to interact with one of the listeners. Otherwise the book is basically one giant quote. Now I consider myself fairly well-read but I can’t remember another book that I have read that relies this much on straight narration by the main character. (Now you might say well any book that has a narrator is relying on the narrator. But HoD is different, I think, because almost the entirety of the book is a quote and it feels like listening to a ghost story next to a camp fire, which is much different than a book like The Great Gatsby. That’s just my opinion though.)
The symbolism in HoD is pretty straight up and hard to miss. The book centers on Marlow’s mission to go find Mr. Kurtz deep in the Congo. The further down the river he travels the darker it gets, much like Dante but in a more literal sense. Along the way Conrad alludes to the darkness of the continent, the Native Africans, the Colonial enterprise, and humanity in general. Throughout the book I kept waiting for some dramatic reveal about Mr. Kurtz or Africa or something but there isn’t anything like that. The journey down the river is the point. The end is incidental to tue journey-which makes sense when you finish the book.
The book is definitely worth picking up and reading, if only to get a sense at some of the practices and attitudes that were prevalent during the colonization of Africa. So if you’re looking for a good book to occupy your time for a day at the beach or a car ride you could do much worse than picking Heart of Darkness.
Next up Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson. I’m about 150 pages into and so far I’m extremely impressed with it.
The other day Colbert had Kissinger on and treated him with kid gloves. He lobbed a bunch of softballs at him and didn’t press him on his checkered history. What the video if you want to see something with very little substance at all or….
…you can head over to the Nixon Library’s new online exhibit. There you can learn about some of the truth behind Vietnam and the December Bombings without all the spin. It’s your call but only one place is going to give you the straight dope.